UNDERSTAND and RETURN to GOD’s PLAN & PURPOSE: Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the fish's belly. And he said: “When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer went up to You, into Your holy temple. Those who regard worthless idols forsake their own Mercy. But I will sacrifice to You with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay what I have vowed. Salvation is of the Lord.” So the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land. (Jonah 1:17; 2:1-2, 7-10)
The book of Jonah is a fascinating story of a disobedient prophet of God who intentionally runs away from God’s plan and purpose in his life. God had given Jonah a specific assignment: to preach the message of God’s judgment against the wickedness and atrocities committed by the people of Nineveh. The wickedness of Nineveh was so great that God was compelled to act against this heathen city (1:2). God planned to overthrow and destroy completely all the inhabitants of the city of Nineveh, but not before giving the people forty days to repent (3:4) and turn away from their violence and all their evil ways (3:8).
This act of grace is strikingly similar to God allowing Noah to prepare an ark (Gen. 6:5-22) and preach righteousness (2 Pet. 2:5) to the people of his generation before destroying them by the flood waters. Another instance of God’s grace was revealed when God sent His two angels to Sodom to warn the people of God’s judgment before destroying Sodom and Gomorrah by raining brimstone and fire upon the cities (Gen. 19:1-29). God’s love and mercy is even upon the most unlovable and despicable people, and He wants none to perish but that "all should come to repentance" (2 Pet. 3:9) and “have everlasting life" (John 3:16).
Just as God was merciful and kind to the people of Nineveh, He was merciful and kind to His wayward prophet Jonah as well. So, when Jonah was thrown into the raging sea by the mariners, God had already “prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah” (1:17) in order to keep him from drowning in the sea. The miracle was not that a fish could swallow a man like Jonah, but that Jonah was not broken into bits and digested by the fish. The fish, which might have been God’s weapon of death, by grace became God’s tool of deliverance for Jonah!
In the dark slimy environment as Jonah was lying inside the belly of the fish, he thought about the merciful protection of God, and may have assessed the fact that there was just enough oxygen for him to breathe and survive. In His faithfulness, God has brought His prophet to the point where he can do nothing other than to submit to the will of God in prayer. Jonah’s prayer to God from the belly of the fish celebrates his deliverance from drowning, but does not mention a word about his desire to escape from the fish. As J. Sidlow Baxter points out, Jonah’s prayer does not have one word of petition, but consists of thanksgiving (vv. 2–6), contrition (vv. 7, 8) and rededication (v. 9). In his extreme distress he prayed to the Lord, vowing to offer a sacrifice to Him in thanksgiving for His deliverance!
The focus in the story of Jonah is on God’s sovereign control over creation to bring about His purpose. Even in the midst of judgment, God still extends mercy to His children. If we are wise, we will understand that God responds to disobedience by making circumstances oppose us. We will know that what is required to cause a change in our hearts and behavior. The path by which we flee from God will become the highway to repentance because of God’s intervention.